Why nuclear as a low carbon energy?


Imagine an energy source that is 1,000,000 times more energy-dense than coal, that is safe, that has a practically inexhaustible supply of fuel, and that emits no greenhouse gases to destabilise our climate, no pollutants to foul our air, and no CO2 to acidify our oceans.

That is the promise of nuclear energy.

Unfortunately that promise has been only partly fulfilled. At the Alvin Weinberg Foundation we believe that a comprehensive, urgent programme of nuclear R&D will give humanity a viable path to abundant, clean and affordable energy. As the world  enters the “Third Wave” of industrialisation, we will need advanced nuclear power to guarantee our energy supply, safeguard our climate, and keep our air clean.

Nuclear power offers many advantages over fossil fuels and current renewable energy technologies:

Nuclear energy is zero-emissions energy Nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide or other air pollutants, unlike fossil fuel plants that spew pollution into the atmosphere. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory has calculated that nuclear emits about the same as current renewable energy technologies, over the lifetime of the plant.

Reliable “baseload” power Nuclear plants provide 24/7 clean energy because they can operate constantly, unlike renewables which are often dependent on specific weather conditions and thus require back-up from fossil fuels.  During the unprecedented Polar Vortex of late-2013, American nuclear plants’ output actually increased when coal and natural gas failed. Nuclear power’s reliability means that nuclear can easily replace polluting “base-load” coal-fired power plants.

The safest of all energy sources Per unit of electricity, nuclear power is the safest of all energy sources. Next-generation reactors, designed using the latest science, are inherently safe. Modern nuclear plants emit less radiation than ‘background’ cosmic radiation, and expose people to far less radiation than a typical trans-Atlantic flight. A recent paper by NASA scientists found that nuclear power has saved 1.84 million lives by avoided air pollution, and that building more reactors could save 7 million lives by 2050

Power for humanity The facts are clear: up to a point, more energy per person leads to improved human lives. As countries bring more and more people out of extreme poverty, demand for energy will keep rising. The US Energy Information Administration predicts that world energy consumption will increase by 56% from 2010-2040. Global energy demand in emerging and developing economies will nearly double over the same period. Without nuclear energy, almost all of that new demand will be met by fossil fuels, driving us all to environmental catastrophe. Practically, nuclear power is the only zero-carbon energy source capable of replacing polluting coal for electricity generation. France’s decision in the 1970s to massively increase its nuclear energy production dramatically lowered its per capita carbon emissions, and the country now has the cleanest air in Europe.

Energy density Nuclear energy is the densest source of energy known: when used in a Fast Reactor, 1 gram of uranium fuel contains as much energy as 1 tonne of coal!

Virtually inexhaustible fuel Astonishingly, next-generation nuclear reactors allow us to make our own fuel. Advanced Fast Breeder Reactors, Molten Salt Reactors and Accelerator-Driven Systems would convert unreactive thorium and uranium ores into fuel, giving humanity a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.

“Waste” needn’t be waste Nuclear power does produce some waste, like all energy sources, but compared to other energy sources, the volumes are minimal — and any waste that is produced is tightly controlled. But there is a proven way of recycling most nuclear “waste” into clean energy. Fast Reactors are able to break down the most troublesome nuclear waste and convert it into clean electricity.

Flexibility Almost all nuclear plants are designed to generate electricity; but reactors can be designed to produce high-temperature heat too. This heat could be used for industrial processes (e.g. cement making) or even for cheap and plentiful desalination to produce fresh water.


© The Alvin Weinberg Foundation 2014
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